Toll renewal measure at dead heat

— A proposition to renew tolls on the Crescent City Connection was in a dead heat at press time, running ahead in Orleans Parish but behind in Jefferson and Plaquemines.

With 536 of 654 precincts reporting in the three parishes, 108,584 voted to renew the tolls and 108,528 were against. In Orleans Parish, with 258 of 366 precincts reporting, 58 percent favored keeping the tolls, or 42,699 to 31,091. But in Jefferson Parish, the vote was 46 percent for and 54 percent against, or 61,651 to 72,030, with 236 of 270 precincts reporting. In Plaquemines Parish, compete results were strongly against the tolls, with 56 percent voting against, or 5,407 no votes to 4,234 yes votes.

The issues has been fiercely debated with toll supporters and opponents jousting for months about whether the state should continue to charge the $1 cash fee and the 40-cent toll tag fee for all drivers headed to the east bank on the Crescent City Connection bridge. Tuesday’s election is the first time voters have been able to weigh in on the fee’s fate.

Toll opponents have argued that the state has largely squandered nearly $400 million collected from the tolls for use on the bridge and the 13 miles of roadway that make up the West Bank Expressway. The money was set aside to be used for maintenance of the two structures and financing operation of the Crescent City Connection police and administration. Toll tag revenue was roughly $21 million to $22 million annually.

Opponents said that although West Bank drivers generate the huge majority of toll tag revenue they have been shorted when it comes to projects. They claim the toll revenue became a de facto slush fund for the state to use on ferries and road projects around Louisiana. More than 200 West Bank businesses signed up as opposing the renewal of the tolls. The tolls were also opposed by Jefferson Parish President John Young and Plaquemines Parish President William Nungesser and state Rep. Patrick Connick.

Toll proponents, including New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, argued that the bridge was a crucial part of the region’s economic development. For much of October, Bridging Progress, a political group organized to push for toll renewal, held news conferences to tout the need for the fees. Those events featured speeches by political, business and law enforcement leaders.

New Orleans Police Superintendent Ronal Serpas, Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand and Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman came out in support of keeping the tolls.

Proponents said that eliminating the tolls could put the region’s security, safety and progress in jeopardy and that the bridge and expressway would have to fight with other entities across the state for funding, leading to disrepair.

If tolls are abolished, the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development will stop collecting the fees at the end of December and move forward with a plan to remove toll booths and consolidate traffic lanes.

The end of tolls would also require the state to implement a new maintenance schedule for the bridge that will reduce grass cutting and debris removal.